A woman dressed in red and a man dressed in brown dance on a stage against a grey and black backdrop

Deep Dive: Ella

Deep Dive: Ella Havelka and Douglas Watkin

Ella Havelka's journey in dance
 Travis Green

WARNING: this article may contain names, images or voices of deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. 

In 2019 the NFSA hosted a screening of Douglas Watkin’s documentary Ella, an insight into the first Indigenous dancer with the Australian Ballet. Following the screening Watkin was joined on stage in a conversation with Ella Havelka, hosted by NFSA Program Manager Karina Libbey.

Director Douglas Watkin and Ella Havelka discuss the documentary Ella with the NFSA's Karina Libbey, 2019

You can find available streaming options for Ella via JustWatch.

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Poster for the documentary Ella featuring a dancer leaping into the air wearing a red dress.
Poster for Ella, 2016

The film follows Ella Havelka as she faces the challenges of reverting to traditional Western-style ballet dancing, En Pointe with the Australian Ballet, after four years of barefoot dancing with Bangarra Dance Theatre.

Woven throughout the film is a moving personal journey back to Ella’s roots as she reconnects with her Aboriginal culture, hearing Wiradjuri language, engaging in basket weaving with elders and visiting the graves of her people for the first time. 

Ultimately, we follow Ella as she finds her unique form of expression through dance, choreographing her own work. Using a blend of Bangarra’s contemporary Aboriginal styles and traditional Western ballet, Ella expresses herself in her own distinctive way.

Ella is directed by Douglas Watkin, an Aboriginal filmmaker from Queensland making his first long-form documentary after working in television for 20 years.

Ella Havelka

Ella Havelka was the first Aboriginal dancer to be invited into the Australian Ballet. Her introduction to dance began at the Dubbo Ballet Studio and, with the help of scholarships and hand-me-down tutus, she quickly started winning local eisteddfods and was soon dancing six days a week.

At the age of 14, Havelka was accepted into the Australian Ballet School in Melbourne. She graduated in 2007 and made her first appearance with Bangarra Dance Theatre in Fire - A Retrospective in 2009, staying with the company for three years. 

Whilst with Bangarra she learnt not only the very different rigours of contemporary dance but began a powerful and moving journey of self-discovery into her Aboriginal heritage. It was not until 2012, when Bangarra did a joint performance with the Australian Ballet, that the call of ballet was reignited within Ella. The following year she accepted an offer to become the first Aboriginal dancer to join the Australian Ballet in its 50-year history.

In 2019 Havelka reunited with Bangarra for six months to perform their 30th anniversary program.

You can view performances by the Australian Ballet on their YouTube page and Bangarra Dance Theatre on their digital streaming page.

Warumuk  –  In the Dark Night 

A collaboration between Bangarra Dance Theatre and the Australian Ballet, Warumuk was commissioned to celebrate the Australian Ballet's 50th anniversary in 2012, and takes its inspiration from traditional Aboriginal stories.  

While past works – like  Alchemy (1996) and Rites (1997) – fused ballet with Indigenous themes, this was  the first time dancers from both companies  joined together in a seamless creative process inspired by Aboriginal culture. From the evening star to the morning star, the myths that resonate within the night sky were expressed from a contemporary perspective. 

The score, composed by David Page, provides a rich mix of soundscape and orchestral instruments, celebrating the resilience of Aboriginal songs and languages.   

Currently streaming on ABC TV’s iView through to 30 July 2020. Music performed by Orchestra Victoria. 

Douglas Watkin

Cairns-born Douglas Watkin has been working in the film industry for over 25 years. His career began in television in 1995 before he established Double Wire Productions in 2000 and began producing and sharing stories of Indigenous Australians. 

He is passionate about bringing Indigenous stories to the forefront, working tirelessly to connect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander practitioners to develop and produce their works. He has travelled nationally and internationally filming documentaries and showcasing cultural events, and is currently Vice President of Content (Indigenous Stories and Talent) at Screen Queensland.

His award-winning feature documentary Ella (2016) and short documentary Constructive Mob (2011) are both held in the NFSA collection.

More Dance

View excerpts from Mimi: An Evening with the Aboriginal Dance Theatre (1988).

See unique and candid footage of members of the Ballet Russes troupe in Australia in the 1930s.

Explore a profile of West Australian Aboriginal performing arts.